Don’t be mistaken by the title. Jeo Baby’s Malayalam film “The Great Indian Kitchen” is not a cooking show, where age-old recipes from ‘God’s own country’ are shared. Instead, the film is a subtle yet hard-hitting portrayal of gender norms and patriarchal customs that are practiced in Indian households. It delves into this misogyny that forms the bedrock of our society that has normalized this behavior for generations.
Of course, one gets to see some traditional Kerala dishes — the laborious Idiyappam or the puttu and kadala curry, the kappa (tapioca) biryani or the nadan fish curry, or masala black tea and the homemade banana chips, or the dosa, accompanied with both sambar and the chamandhi (chutney) not made in the mixer, but hand-ground, because that’s how the patriarch of the house likes it. But instead of appreciating or even drooling over the food, the viewer is drawn to the newly wed, who laboriously toils in the kitchen day after day, catering to the palates of the men in the house.
The newly-wed’s father-in-law hates all modern, labor saving machines, and why not, when he has two women who can function like machines for him? He even needs his wife to bring him his footwear and keep it close to his feet, so he can merely slip it in, with minimum effort.
The film begins with a wedding. An arranged match between the bride (Nimisha Sajayan) and groom (Suraj Venjaramoodu). We see the soon-to-be bride dancing, as her family prepares for the arrival of the groom and his family. We hear the sizzle of the oil as freshly cut plantains are fried, and steam coming out of the puttu pans as the hot molds are unmolded and kept ready.
The blushing bride comes to her new home and is introduced to the kitchen -— where she’d be spending most of her time. In the beginning, she starts as her mother-in-law’s apprentice. But when her mother-in-law leaves to take care of her pregnant daughter, the entire burden of household duty falls on her shoulder. The incessant toiling in the kitchen takes over her mundane routine. She is tasked with meeting specific food demands of the men, along with other domestic chores. The men, meanwhile, read the newspaper, scroll through their phones, practice yoga, and relax.
She preps, cooks, cleans, and cooks again. There’s fresh food required at every meal. While the men savor and relish the food, they show no regard or respect for the cook. There’s no words of appreciation, no gratitude. All they leave for her after every meal is a filthy plate and an even filthier table cloth, with chewed up drumsticks and bones strewn outside the plate.
The viewer can feel her disgust as she cleans after the men every day. She is so overwhelmed with the household chores that she is never allowed to open her mind to desires. She is also not allowed to think or have an opinion.
She wants to work, teach dance, pursue her passion. She even mentions it. But is chided by both her husband and her father-in-law and is reminded of her “duty” as a woman.
Of course, she’s not an exception. Day in and day out, there’s been thousands of women who have performed their duties, never expressing any desire or want. They are conditioned to think of it as their “duty,” their karma, and not as their oppression. After all, isn’t a way to a man’s heart through his stomach?
The immense load of work exhausts her yet she continues to be treated like a second class citizen. She does get a break on the days she’s menstruating, but she is made to feel so inferior and like an untouchable, that it beats the purpose. Other days, she is treated with passive contempt.
The film also brings in tradition, religion and social issues touching on the Sabrimala Temple issue in dealing with the stigma associated with menstruation.
The lead characters in “The Great Indian Kitchen” have no names. The director has deliberately kept it that way to highlight the sameness of the experience. The dialogues are few and far in between. Each scene is long, and at times feels slow. And yet, the film makes an impact. Every scene hits the mark with storytelling. Step-by-step we see how Sajayan’s character is breaking, how she feels to feel less and less of a human.
There is no background score as well, except the utensils clanging, the water dripping from the faucet, the sizzling of the oil and the whistles of the pressure cooker. It feels real and mundane.
Sajayan and Venjaramoodu are perfect in their roles. Sajayan’s suppressed anger and her outbursts are perfectly matched with Venjaramoodu ’s callousness and disinterest. He’s just like his father. A man who expects his wife to take care of his ever need and desire. But despite her obedience, she is put down daily by her husband -— through his smiles and his behavior. Never do we see him raising his voice or his hand on her. The kitchen is her domain, and even if there’s a leaking faucet, it is not his responsibility. He conveniently forgets to call a plumber after umpteen reminders from his wife, and leaves her to deal with the mess.
What makes the film stand out, for me, is the end. Sajayan’s character in the film is not ambitious. She is just an everyday housewife, who has to deal with the daily, mundane chores. However, she is not willing to comprise her self-worth and self-respect, and be treated like a second class citizen. She gets rids of the societal shackles and taboos, and creates a world for herself, a world where there’s a choice, where there’s respect.
“The Great Indian Kitchen” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The film is in Malayalam with English subtitles.
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.